Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops on Wednesday night carried out a raid in northern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have evacuated and where Israel is likely to carry out a ground invasion.
It’s at least the second such IDF raid over the Gaza border since the war began earlier this month, and the latest sign of an imminent Israeli escalation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly touted a next phase of the conflict, but when and how it will happen remains unclear.
The IDF announced the most recent raid on the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday, writing, “In preparation for the next stages of combat, the IDF operated in northern Gaza. IDF tanks & infantry struck numerous terrorist cells, infrastructure and anti-tank missile launch posts. The soldiers have since exited the area and returned to Israeli territory.”
The Biden administration has repeatedly declared its support for Israel since Hamas’s shock offensive on October 7, when the militant group that controls Gaza overwhelmed IDF command posts, killed 1,400 people, and kidnapped at least 220. In the intervening weeks, the administration has also sent military officers like Marine Gen. James Glynn, who worked with the US coalition to defeat ISIS, to advise the Israeli response; deployed two carrier strike groups and additional air support in the eastern Mediterranean; and mobilized more than 2,000 troops to deter Iran and its affiliated groups from becoming openly involved in the war.
The US and other international actors are hoping to contain the conflict and have successfully argued for a delay in the invasion, while some foreign policy officials and experts have argued that Israel should pursue a more limited counterterrorism approach, rather than a full-scale ground invasion.
But experts said it’s unlikely Wednesday’s raid signals an unexpected strategy shift. For now, the country appears set to go forward with a large-scale ground assault.
The raid was likely preparation for a ground assault in northern Gaza
Israel has put boots on the ground in Gaza before, and occupied the territory from 1967 to 2005, after which it unilaterally withdrew from the region.
Since then, there have been a number of limited Israeli ground assaults into Gaza. When ordered, they tend to be horrific, causing devastating infrastructure damage and heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, as well as deaths of Israeli soldiers. In 2014, simmering conflict in Gaza exploded into a major Hamas rocket offensive into Israel, which responded with a 19-day ground invasion. Though an Egypt-mediated ceasefire in August of that year ended the acute crisis, 2,251 Palestinians — including 1,462 civilians — and 73 Israelis were killed in the fighting, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Wednesday’s raid lasted overnight into Thursday, according to Reuters; the black-and-white footage the IDF released alongside its announcements of the raid shows numerous tanks, along with armored vehicles and bulldozers. “We actually engaged the enemy, killing terrorists who were planning to conduct attacks against us with anti-tank guided missiles,” IDF spokesperson Peter Lerner told CNN.
Wednesday’s raid was far from the first signal of an impending ground attack. On October 22, the IDF conducted a similar raid in which one Israeli soldier was killed. The IDF has called up more than 300,000 reservists, and the Israel Air Force has launched continued air strikes throughout Gaza since October 7, including in the south, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians have fled since the IDF ordered them to evacuate during the first week of the war.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a television address Wednesday that Israel is “preparing for a ground incursion,“ but that the timing of a broader operation would be determined by the country’s war cabinet, formed in the wake of the October 7 attacks. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant promised at a Thursday briefing in Tel Aviv that “there will be more,” but added that more significant operations would begin “when the conditions are right. These conditions are complex because so is the campaign. The troops are ready.”
It’s unlikely that these raids will replace a ground invasion to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities, James Jeffrey, former special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, told Vox in an interview.
“It is highly unlikely that they will do raid after raid after raid [in Gaza] and not try to stay in there,” he said.
The US is insisting that Israel have a plan — and trying to ward off a regional war
What’s more likely, according to Jeffrey, is that the IDF is using raids like the one on Wednesday night to gather intelligence about Hamas and disrupt its command communications, in addition to taking out targets as the IDF claimed on social media — all in preparation for a much larger incursion.
It’s what Jeffrey referred to as a “tank raid” — a fairly standard military operation and one that could serve several purposes. “They were testing how easy it is to get in, they were testing the reaction of Hamas, and obviously they had some target to destroy,” he said.
As it conducts such raids, Israel appears to be building out its military strategy in real time; concerns about a regional conflagration, the safety of the more than 200 hostages that remain in Gaza, and what happens to Gaza and Palestinians after the inevitable end of the war all demand meaningful consideration and careful planning.
According to recent reporting by the New York Times, however, the US harbors concerns about whether that planning is sufficient to the task of mounting a ground invasion that will consist of difficult, dangerous urban combat. US officials have repeatedly insisted that Israel makes its own military decisions and that US military assistance does not mean that the US is directing strategy — and indeed, there are likely disagreements between US and Israeli approaches.
“The US approach is just different; the US approach has assumed that these armed groups are not permanent; the US approach has assumed that you can split them off from populations that might be inclined to support them or might feel afraid and need to support them,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview. “The Israelis, in some way, feel, ‘You may have been fighting counter-insurgency for a decade or two; we’ve been fighting the Palestinians for a century and we don’t need your lessons.’”
Serious concern about a regional conflagration does drive US posture in the region, though: Both Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, have threatened to escalate their aggressive actions should Israel launch a ground invasion into Gaza. The US also has installations in Syria and Iraq that local Iranian proxy groups have attacked in the past week after a months-long period of restraint. According to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, Biden administration efforts to delay any ground assault by Israeli troops have been driven at least in part by the need to protect US troops and prepare to manage a potential multi-front conflict.
Those preparations include “nearly a dozen air-defense systems” in at least six countries in the region, the Journal reported on Wednesday, and could be completed as soon as this week.
Still, despite the delay and US officials, including President Joe Biden, continuing to urge caution, there’s little likelihood that Israel’s intention to stage a ground invasion has changed; Wednesday’s tank raid is likely just a step in that direction.